In the 1960s, Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists led the charge for the right of black Americans to be treated as human beings. Their efforts would later pave the way for the erudite Barack Obama to ascend the US presidency. Fifty years after MLK, “Americans of colour” are still fighting to stay alive. Maybe this is a clear case of discrimination, or maybe the issues are more intertwined than is being accepted.
From Ferguson to Baton Rouge, the imagery is shocking— black Americans killed by police officers that were supposed to protect them, and officers indiscriminately killed by blacks. While the blacks point to harmful racial profiling and stereotyped police behaviour, the police claim that the recipients of lethal police bullets, Tasers and rough handling were potentially harmful criminals who would have harmed officers. Beyond killings by the police, incidents such as the Trayvon Martin killing have led to suggestions that the lives of blacks are still being valued at slavery-era levels— a dime a million.
Expectedly, the deaths have led to indictments and protests. Spanning the full response spectrum, protests have ranged from the peaceful to the violent, even to extreme violence with rioting, looting and targeted murder of police officers. The recent incident in Dallas where a sniper happily wasted the lives of police officers, and in Baton Rouge where officers were ambushed, shows how far people can go to revenge a perceived wrong. Can America ever get out of this cycle of violence?
Available demographic trends are disturbing. A black man is more likely to serve jail time than to graduate from college. A black man is more likely to be arrested before he turns eighteen than a white man. Compared to their respective populations, America’s prisons contain a higher percentage of blacks than whites. A black man is more likely to be stopped by a patrol car than a white man. Being black is enough to raise suspicious fear and relegate the idea of assumed innocence. The system appears rigged against blacks. Should we then absolve the black community of culpability in these stats?
It is easy to play the race card and blame the whites for all travails of the blacks. However, it is this “we vs them” routine that has entrenched the unbelievable violence in America. For the cyclic violence to cease, all parties in this mess have to acknowledge their role in enlivening the chaos. The whites, blacks, government, private sector, non-governmental organisations and the media have to admit that their hands are somewhat in the till.
Are blacks targeted by the police because they are criminals, or are blacks pushed into criminal behaviour by the actions of the police? Is the stereotyped behaviour of many white police officers due to the behaviour of blacks, or is the behaviour of blacks a result of mistrust and discrimination by the police? Both questions are basically cut from the same block. Resolving the present logjam requires facing these questions sincerely, without the impediment of racial superiority, officialised negligence nor victim-card playing.
Violence begets violence. This is as true as saying a seed produces more seeds. In fact, violence results in increasing levels of violence. The loop is self-propagating except something gives way. Starting with the black community, there is a need for introspection. Why is it “always blacks”? An average black person (not Obama-ish) grows up in a low income community decorated with violence. Drugs, gang violence, pimping and other anti-social acts are everyday realities for this John Doe Black.
People are products of their environment. Hence, growing up within violence greatly increases the prospects of violent behaviour, thereby raising the prospects of arrest and jail time. Whereas it may be argued that some of the factors for the ambient violence, such as poverty and poor educational facilities, are caused by external factors, the black community cannot continue to apportion blame and live in self-pity. It needs to get its act together and handle those things that are within its purview, while working with other parties to address those things that are beyond it.
The American government has succeeded in jailing a disproportionate percentage of blacks, especially for drug-related charges. Available records show that a large proportion of jailed blacks were jailed via plea deals. It can then be argued that some of them may actually be innocent of the slammed charges. A poor black person would rather plead guilty and accept a “lower” sentence, rather than to place faith in an overworked public defender. Leaving the issue of innocence and guilt, prison time turns out to be a “death sentence” for many blacks. After release, the system is rigged against ex-convicts. The government and the private sector usually refuses to employ ex-convicts. Thus, even repented persons facing the challenge of survival get sucked into the violence on the streets. You cannot send a large number of blacks to prison, block them from reintegrating into the society after prison, allow poverty to stay endemic, and then expect violence rates to drop. That is a dream that even Don Quixote would not dare dream.
The media have also contributed to the loop. As long as movies and news reports continue to broadcast sometimes “exaggerated” tales of violence by blacks, the society would remain with an entrenched fear of blacks. This is why blacks would continue to be viewed with suspicion by non-blacks. An average white person sees a black person and thinks “here is another violent person”. This thought translates into words and actions around blacks. This is why some whites would quickly call 911 if they see a hooded black in their vicinity, but may not get suspicious over a hooded white. It will take a lot of time, maybe even a generation, but there needs to be active moves to break preconceived fears and stereotypes.
For the police, as the main trigger of the Black Lives Mater movement, they have much work to do in order to win the trust and respect of the black community. The fact is that without the trust of the policed, the police would be ineffective. It is understandable that police officers are drawn from a society that fears blacks, hence, many of them are already biased against blacks. However, police departments need to train officers to dump existing stereotypes, and as much as possible, try to give everyone the benefit of doubt. In communities with large black populations, white officers can be paired with black officers and immersed in such communities. By being immersed within the people they distrust, while with a trusted officer as partner, white officers would gradually overcome existing fear. Such “re-educated” white officers can be later paired with other white officers to help the latter face the demons in their minds. When the black community sees that is it being treated with respect by police officers, mutual respect would develop, helping the police to be more effective at its duties, and reducing the number of body bags filled each year.
The animosity between the police and black communities across America would continue its violent loop except the root causes are addressed. If everyone involved would just sincerely seek peace, existing wounds can be healed, and a new path of peace can be laid for all Americans. If not, this sad chicken-and-egg loop would continue.
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